Tag Archives: Thai-Burma railway

The Chindit Operations

Piers Storie-Pugh has travelled to Burma since 1985 and the Chindit Operations is one of his specialities; he has both written and made films about them. He regularly presents his talk “The Chindit Operations of Burma 1943-44”, which is supported by over 150 PowerPoint photographs, many never seen before.

From 1941 disaster followed disaster for Great Britain and her Empire and indeed for the Far East. The fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941, was followed by the fall of Malaya and the disastrous surrender of Singapore in February 1942. A failed expedition into the Arakan sealed the fate of the Allies at that time.

Field Marshall Wavell sent for Orde Wingate, who had made his name in Palestine and Eritrea and told him to look at the feasibility of long range penetration into Burma. Wingate therefore paid a visit to Mike Calvert, then commanding the Bush Warfare School in Maymyo, right up in the Shan Hills. Together they walked through the jungle discussing the tactics and this was to be the embryo of the Chindits. Wavell decided that all operations into Burma in 1943 should be stood down but Wingate persuaded him that his 3rd LRP Brigade was eager to go ahead. Thus, Operation Longcloth was launched! Commanded personally by Orde Wingate three thousand men and five hundred mules and horses, with air support left Imphal and marched eastwards in February 1943. Along the way they bumped into groups of Japanese, crossed the very fast flowing Chindwin, continued eastwards, cutting railway lines, blowing bridges and perfecting the art of air re-supply lines and met friendly local Burmese. The Japanese were perplexed by both the purpose and how the Chindits were sustained in the field.

Having crossed the Irrawaddy, one of the widest rivers in the world, they were at the extreme range of air supply and becoming boxed in by a swiftly reacting enemy. Imphal Army Headquarters ordered their return to India. Wingate broke up the groups and under their own arrangements headed westwards; some went north via China, others through NE Assam; but some never made it – they had run into the Japanese force, which had gone ahead expecting a follow up Chindit Operation.

Wingate had his enemies not least because Operation Longcloth was expensive in the loss of men and most of those who got back were in no fit state for another such long range expedition.

However, the exploits were given triumphant coverage by the press, eager for some good news and entranced PM Winston Churchill. Wingate was sent for and accompanied the PM to the Quebec Conference. There he shared his vision for future operations, thrilled the American Chiefs of Staff who in any case needed support for their own efforts in China and Wingate gained the promise of sufficient air power to raise five brigades for 1944.

Given this American support it was decided to fly in the Chindits by glider on Operation Thursday, but with Ferguson’s Brigade marching in alone; he did so to protect Stillwell’s right flank advancing from China, south towards Myitkyina.

The most successful Brigade Commander was undoubtedly Brigadier Mike Calvert DSO*. Flown into Broadway with his 3,000 men plus mules and horses, he advanced to Pagoda Hill which dominated the Japanese supply line from Mandalay northwards. He attacked the hill, established White City Fortress and caused havoc in the area. Ferguson, when he arrived after an extremely arduous advance, established Aberdeen; later Jack Masters established Blackpool.

Wingate visited Calvert, and had a wonderful few days meeting officers and soldiers from his old brigade, before flying on to Aberdeen to see Ferguson. Wingate was killed in a plane crash and so in many ways did his dream. However, Mountbatten said that by this time the 14th Army was ‘Chindit minded’.

The Chindits now came under command of the American General Vinegar Joe Stillwell. He hated the ‘Lazy Limies’ but had a huge respect for Wingate.

Without Wingate to protect them and with the gentlemanly Joe Lentaigne as Wingate’s successor, the Chindits were driven ruthlessly hard by Stillwell. He ordered Calvert to head north and capture Mogaung. Described as a mini Passchendaele this battle started on 6th June 1944 (!) and lasted nonstop for three weeks by which time Calvert had only 10% of his force fully fit. Nevertheless, the Chindits captured Mogaung with Chinese support. Suffering from wounds, sores, malaria and other afflictions, not least the demands from Stillwell, they were ordered by Mountbatten to be flown out to India.

The Chindits cut the essential Japanese supply lines to their troops facing Stillwell’s Army: blew up bridges, had fierce hand to hand medieval battles and slowed the Japanese advance towards Kohima and Imphal; causing them to be beleaguered the wrong side of the monsoon. The Chindits lit a flame of hope and did a huge amount to keep the American Chinese Army committed to the front.

Slim’s 14th Army drawn from Great Britain and many parts of the Empire, as well as local troops, may have been the Forgotten Army, but their exploits live on and have become the stuff of legend: The Chindits are right up there in this catalogue of astonishing achievements.

Even in the most atrocious conditions against a cruel enemy, thousands of miles from home, The Chindit Operations will live on in history as endeavours of extraordinary courage, cheek, panache and considerable sacrifice.

Those who were killed on that operation are buried or commemorated in the Htaukkyan War Cemetery or on the Rangoon Memorial. There are over five thousand graves and some twenty thousand names on the memorial – testament to the sacrifice in this Forgotten War.

Some of the Chindits captured were flung in Rangoon Goal and suffered similar dreadful ordeals of cruelty, hunger, beastings, disease and despair as their FEPOW comrades in The Far East.

The infamous Burma-Siam Railway pushed through Three Pagodas Pass, where it crossed the border, to reach Thanbyuziat where one will find the third  Commonwealth War Cemetery in Burma.

Mike Calvert returned to Burma just once and is seen here with Piers on top of Pagoda Hill which he stormed in March 1944.
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For talk or tour enquiries please contact pierss-p@virginmedia.com

POW War Graves in Thailand

 

To coincide with the publication of her latest article in History Today, Dr Clare Makepeace writes for RFHG about her moving research into POW war graves in Thailand.

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Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

A few years ago, I visited Kanchanaburi and Chungkai war cemeteries in Thailand, which lie approximately 80 miles north-west of Bangkok. The cemeteries contain the bodies of thousands of POWs who died while constructing the Thai-Burma railway. I was backpacking around Asia at the time and, in between immersing myself in the continent’s wonderful food and culture, I was visiting every historical site I could reach. While staying in Kanchanaburi, I also went to the Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. I still regard the latter as the best museum I have ever visited.

Visiting the war cemeteries was a profoundly moving experience. I had gone to war cemeteries in the past, but this was something different. I think part of the difference was due to my physical surroundings. The cemeteries felt like surreal enclaves. Their beautifully-tended green lawns and the peace and serenity that reigned within them contrasted starkly with Bangkok’s cacophony and concrete, from which I had recently emerged. Another reason for the difference was that, unlike in other war cemeteries, I could picture quite vividly the circumstances in which these men perished, that is while in captivity, while being forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway and, in all likelihood, from one or a combination of five diseases. Dysentery, malaria, tropical ulcers, cholera and malnutrition were the main killers. Knowing the conditions and causes from which most of these men died somehow made them more human, more tangible and more real.

However, I was moved most by the personal inscriptions carried on each man’s headstone. These inscriptions ensured I was not just scrolling through reams of names, ranks and ages, but that I was seeing individual after individual, and grieving family after grieving family. I was seeing a son who would never take up his place at the dinner table again when I read ‘He sits no more at familiar tables of home, he sleeps beyond England’s foam’. Or, when I looked at the inscription ‘Secret tears often flow; what it meant to lose you no one will ever know’, I saw bereaved parents, whose stoicism was hiding an untellable loss.

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Chungkai War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe

I decided there and then that one day I would write about these epitaphs. I felt there was a powerful story to be told: about how the bereaved in the Second World War made sense of losing a loved one in such horrific circumstances.

In 2017, I spent a couple of months reading the inscription on every single headstone belonging to the 6,609 men from the British armed forced who are buried at Kanchanaburi war cemetery, Chungkai war cemetery and Thanbyuzayat war cemetery. Thanbyuzayat lies just over the border in Myanmar. It contains the graves of those who lost their lives along the northern section of the line.

When I read these thousands of inscriptions, some stood out for their tenderness, others for their intimacy, some for their anger and a few for their appalling stories of parental loss. I dug deeper behind the names and inscriptions, to unearth what I could about the life of each of these prisoners. Beyond these individual stories, when I looked at the epitaphs as a whole, I was able to draw some broad conclusions about how people made sense of their bereavement in the Second World War.

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© Mick Newbatt, CWGC.

My research has just been published in this month’s edition of History Today. I’m delighted to see it in print but, if truth be told, I’m also feeling some trepidation. When we write history, we have to be as accurate and informative as we can. That’s a given. But the more I know about what prisoners of war went through and the more I understand the trials they faced, the more I hope I write about them with the respect and sensitivity I think they deserve. I feel an increasing sense of responsibility not to let their memory down. Today I feel that obligation more than ever. I’m not sure if that attachment to my subject makes me a good or a bad historian. I think I’ll let you decide. If you read my article, perhaps you can let me know.

Clare Makepeace is the author of Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War. She is also an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London.

All words © Clare Makepeace, 2019. Feature image: Kanchanaburi War Cemetery © Richard Stokoe.

Stories of Hope and Forgiveness from the Burma Railway

Sat 27 October 2018, 7.30pm

Steeple Church, Nethergate, Dundee, DD1 4DG

Eric Lomax’s book, ‘The Railway Man’, records his terrible experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. The book inspired the film of the same name starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine. Charmaine McMeekin is Eric’s daughter and she will speak movingly about living with the painful legacy of her father’s experiences and her own journey to find peace and reconciliation with him. Charmaine was a nurse and midwife, she is now a counsellor and psychotherapist in Edinburgh.

Captain Clarkson Blackater was also captured by the Japanese in 1942 and sent to work on the notorious Burma -Thai Railway. The secret diary he kept during his ordeal became the basis of his book ‘Gods Without Reason’. His daughter, Phyllida, and grandson, Piers Bowser, will use extracts from his book, along with private letters and poems to reveal how his faith and his love for his family sustained him through his dark days in captivity.

Tickets are £5  and available here.

Proceeds from this event are in aid of Erskine care for ex-servicemen.

75th Anniversry of the Completion of the Thai-Burma Railway

To mark the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Thai-Burma railway, Professor Geoff Gill writes for RFHG about the railway’s construction and its post-war legacy.

On the 17th October 1943 the Thai-Burma railway was completed, when lines from Thailand and Burma finally met at Konkoita in the remote jungles of up-country Thailand. The railway was 415Km (259miles) long and linked existing rail networks in Thailand (at Nong Pladuk) and Burma (at Thanbyuzayat). It crossed inhospitable jungle terrain and an elevation of almost 1000 feet. The line was constructed to aid troop and equipment movements to Burma, with a view to invasion of the Indian sub-continent. By the time it was completed however, the tide of the Second World War was turning and, effectively, the railway was not used for its original purpose (instead it was used to transport equipment and military supplies, not troops, until early 1945).

Completion of the railway was undoubtedly a major feat of engineering, but it came at a cost. The labour force consisted of approximately 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) – most British – as well as at least 150,000 forced labourers (romusha). All of those in working parties suffered overwork, harsh treatment, under-nutrition, and exposure to serious tropical diseases (notably malaria, dysentery, beriberi, tropical ulcers and cholera). POW medical officers and medical orderlies did a remarkable job in meeting these medical challenges, despite severe shortages of drugs and medical equipment.

The overall mortality of POWs on the Thai-Burma railway was just over 20% – tragic, but without the amazingly innovative work of the doctors and others it could have been much more. This is shown by the mortality rates of romusha (at least 50%) – largely related to their lack of regimental organisation or medical support.

After the war, survivors of the Thai-Burma railway faced continuing problems, and many suffered relapses of malaria and dysentery, long-term effects of malnutrition, intestinal worm infections, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) was the leading centre looking after British ex-POWs affected by these problems.  Patients at LSTM included Stanley Pavillard, who was a charismatic and much-respected medical officer on the railway, and who wrote a unique record of his experiences, Bamboo Doctor.

A great supporter of LSTM in the post-war years (and later LSTM President) was  the ex-Far East POW Phillip Toosey, who was the Commanding Officer at Tamarkan Camp and involved with building the real “Bridge over the River Kwai”. The illustration below shows this bridge under construction – the photograph was taken by an Imperial Japanese Army officer who was an amateur photographer.

BRM Tamarkan bridge (2)

17th October 2018 marks 75 years since the railway; completion. It is in many ways a regrettable anniversary, but it also reminds us of the bravery of men under extreme adversity, and the ability of many to survive against the odds. The medical aftermath has also taught us much about the long-term effects of exposure to tropical disease and under-nutrition.

Geoff has reecently co-authored with Meg Parkes two books focusing on the POW experience: Burma Railway Medicine: Disease, Death and Survival on the Thai-Burma Railway, 1942 – 1945, and Captive Memories: Starvation, Disease, Survival. Both are published by Palatine.

Jack Chalker’s Centenary

10 October 2018, would have been Jack Bridger Chalker’s 100th birthday. Widely known as the “Burma railway artist”, he is famed and remembered for his remarkable depictions of captivity under the Japanese during the Second World War: a vivid and uncompromising documentary of disease, death and survival thanks to remarkable ingenuity, in camps along the Thai-Burma Railway.  Meg Parkes and Geoff Gill write for RFHG about a remarkable man and his enduring legacy.

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Working Men © J.B.Chalker

Jack Bridger Chalker: 10 October 1918 – 15 November 2014

Born in 1918 in London, Jack was educated at Dulwich College and later Goldsmith’s where he studied graphics and art. Awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art,  this was deferred due to the outbreak of war in 1939. He volunteered, joining the Territorials’ 260 Battery 118th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. In October 1941 Jack’s unit was posted to Singapore, sailing from Liverpool on the Orcades. Stopping briefly in India, his ship docked in Singapore on 29 January, just 17 days before the garrison faced a humiliating surrender to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.

After initial imprisonment at the vast Changi POW camp, he moved first to Havelock Road camp to work on the docks, before being sent north to Thailand arriving at Ban Pong on 19 October. Marched 160 kilometres north through raw jungle to Konyu River camp, Jack worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Here the combination of disease, malnutrition and working like slaves meant mortality was high. A near-fatal bout of sickness had Jack moved south, first to Tarsau and then on to the larger POW “hospital” camp at Chungkai at the southern end of the railway.

During an interview in 2007, Jack recalled that early on in Changi he had drawn pictures of sexy ladies for his comrades for whatever the going currency was. But soon he was producing depictions of imprisonment in and around Singapore, including examples of Japanese brutality. On the railway he expanded this work to include the beautiful things that surrounded them – breath-taking scenery, exotic flora and abundant wildlife – as well as details of camp life. Later, at the base hospital camps, he concentrated on recording the medical problems and the improvised equipment used for treatments. In addition he also filled notebooks with anatomical studies. All this work was done at great risk as any form of record-keeping was strictly forbidden by the Japanese.

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This exquisite 3” by 2” miniature watercolour, painted by Jack’s great friend and fellow artist Ashley Old, was done quickly, in secret and kept hidden.  It shows the aftermath of Jack’s near-fatal encounter with a Korean guard who spotted him sketching while in the sick hut at Konyu camp. Courtesy J. Chalker © Bartholomew family

It was at Chungkai that Jack worked closely with the Australian surgeon Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop and, after the Japanese official surrender in September 1945, he was invited by Dunlop to remain for a while in Bangkok, acting as war artist for the Australian Army HQ. There he completed and added to his collection of drawings and paintings, some of which were used in subsequent war crime tribunals as well as in medical journals in Australia.

On return to England Jack took up his scholarship at the Royal College of Art. There followed a highly successful career, including posts as Director of Art at Cheltenham Ladies College, Principal of Falmouth College of Art, and later a similar position at the West of England College of Art in Bristol. He retired in 1974.

After the war, Jack did not involve himself with the Far East POW community and for many years his artwork from captivity was largely unknown in Britain. In the early 1980s, Dr Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) noticed some of Jack’s drawings illustrating a 1946 paper, published by Dunlop in the Australian Medical Journal. These were attributed to “Gunner Chalker” and for some time it was assumed that the works were by an Australian. However, eventually Jack was tracked down to his studio in rural Somerset.

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Jack with “Weary” Dunlop, Somerset, 1980s © A.Chalker

Jack visited LSTM where he underwent tropical disease screening. He brought photographic copies of his railway art collection, which he presented to the School. His links and friendships with staff in Liverpool continued throughout the rest of his life.

Jack’s reputation as a POW artist grew and he published his epic book, Burma Railway Artist, in 1994 with a revised and expanded edition in 2007 (Burma Railway – Images of War). Though remembered mainly for the illustrations, Jack’s text in both books was a perceptive and detailed reflection of POW life and conditions. Tim Mercer, who published the 2007 volume, said: “Jack was one of the most special people I have ever met. No bitterness, no regrets and he even said he would not have missed his time as a prisoner of war for anything…Cheers Jack..!”

Jack was married twice and had three children. Those who knew him remember a delightfully modest and unassuming man. He held no bitterness for what he had experienced, and even said that he had benefitted enormously because of “all the wonderful people I met”.

Jack Chalker died on 15 November 2014, aged 96. Previously unseen examples of his artwork from captivity will be included in next year’s Far East POW Secret Art of Survival exhibition organised by LSTM and held at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, opening on 19 October 2019.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Adrian Chalker and Tim Mercer for their help in compiling this tribute. Title image: Jack Bridger Chalker, 2010 © Parkes LSTM